Public education policy is one area where consensus crosses political party lines—the consensus, that is, about imposing punitive “reforms” like school closures, expanding charterization, and scapegoating public school teachers if they cannot seem to raise their students test scores. In these days when much of our politics is highly partisan, it may be difficult to grasp and accept that current theories attacking traditional public schools and supporting privatized alternatives are fully bipartisan. But harsh turnourounds, school closures and privatization are supported these days by prominent Democrats as well as the Republicans who are better known for such policies.
Bruce Reed, profiled recently in Inside Philanthropy, provides case in point. Reed is a long and experienced Democratic operative who, in November 2013, left a job as chief of staff for Vice President Joe Biden to move into a highly influential school “deform” position by becoming president of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. According to Education Week‘s Marketplace K-12 blog, Reed was chief domestic policy advisor for President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 2001. Inside Philanthropy reports that Reed also served as CEO of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Reed was once a speech writer for Vice President Al Gore.
According to Inside Philanthropy‘s profile, “Ideologically, Reed looks like a perfect fit for Broad, whose political affiliations lean Democratic but who is an ardent foe of teachers unions, a traditionally reliable Democratic constituency.” “The Broad Education Foundation approaches school reform at the system level, funding projects that design new schools and education systems. That includes staunch support of charter schools, but also big investments in bolstering the management skills of public education leaders. The foundation favors reforms that are designed to reduce what Eli Broad sees as bureaucratic barriers that interfere with teaching and learning. The foundation also supports value-added teacher appraisal models.” The Broad Superintendents’ Academy certifies business leaders and military officers without experience in public schools to become school superintendents.
Inside Philanthropy reports that, “After the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, Broad has been the biggest spending education philanthropist of recent years.”
Here is a very brief history of the development of a bipartisan consensus supporting corporate “school reform”—by which today in Washington, political leaders in both major parties relentlessly pursue school reform dominated by a business-accountability strategy. As early as 1989, President George H.W. Bush, responding to fears that the United States was becoming uncompetitive, launched a movement based on standards, assessments, and accountability by convening an education summit of the nation’s governors, chaired by Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, to agree on national education goals. Through the 1990s states began to embrace test-based accountability. Then in 2001, when Congress—under President George W. Bush—reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with a new name, “No Child Left Behind,” the federal government mandated test-and-punish.
After President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. Department of Education pursued the very same philosophy by making a portion of the huge federal stimulus, intended to shore up the economy after the 2008 economic crisis, available to states for school reform. These programs required states to compete for billions of dollars through Race to the Top, Innovation Grants, and School Improvement Grants, but strings were attached. To qualify, states had to agree to adopt additional punitive reforms prescribed by the U.S. Department of Education. States earned points:
- if their legislatures rewrote laws to permit rapid growth in the number of charter schools;
- if they promised to implement specified models for school “turnaround”—plans that included firing the principal and half the staff in so-called “failing” schools without hearings or individual evaluations, closing low scoring schools and moving the students elsewhere, and turning over low-scoring schools to charter management organizations or education management companies; and
- if their legislatures changed laws to tie teacher evaluation and pay to students’ test scores.
The No Child Left Behind waivers that the U.S. Department of Education has been offering the states to help them escape NCLB’s unworkable Adequate Yearly Progress requirement, demand the same punitive reforms. President Obama’s education policies continue to epitomize test-and-punish. Increasingly school closures, rapid charterization, and evaluating teachers based on students’ test scores have become the bludgeon used to punish. These are attacks on the heart of public education.
Test-based accountability has become the education policy of both political parties and all the recent Administrations—Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama. Parents, teachers and others who understand the value of our society’s historical commitment to public education need to look for and support political leaders who courageously endorse expanding opportunity through public schooling. New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio is one such leader.